When I was in college, I had the opportunity to go on a Maymester to Scotland. That was in 2008. It didn’t travel internationally again until 2018 when I went to Taiwan. I prayed that it wouldn’t be another ten years before I travelled again. And that prayer was answered. In January I’m headed on a pilgrimage to Israel with the church.
When I was preparing to go to Taiwan last year, I felt led to read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s not the typical book you’d pick up before a mission trip. It’s not even approaching “churchy,” but it was just what I needed.
Because at its core, the book is about mental toughness. Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail by herself with little knowledge of hiking and camping. She endangered herself and got a lot of things wrong. She could have turned back countless times (a few times she probably should have) but she didn’t. She simply refused to give up. She had reached a point in her life, mentally and emotionally, where she didn’t have any other option. It was hike or die.
I really needed that message. Not so much for the time I was actually in Taiwan but for what has come after. On my job, as a writer, in my personal life. I get tired and discouraged. And angry. So angry because I’m doing what’s asked of me and yet it’s just so damn hard. But I’m not giving up. It’s not an option. It’s not in the vocabulary. This is a no-fail mission.
I have no idea what will come out of the trip to Israel but I’m going. Because, really, there just isn’t any other option.
I just finished J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy about a kid growing up in Ohio, a grandchild of the hillbillies who made the trek from the hills of Kentucky after WWII in search of opportunity and the American Dream. It was good to see the white working-class (lovingly called hillbillies) so well represented. Mr. Vance is my age, early thirties, grew up poor and disadvantaged in the Rust Belt. A lot of his experiences are extreme, and I grew up in an intact family with all the opportunity to achieve what I wanted, but his family members and some experiences seemed very familiar to me. I have some nuts hanging from the family tree (thankfully they were not a large part of my formative years), but mostly what I recognized were the kids I went to school with.
The South has its own version of hillbillies called (lovingly or not depending on who you talk to) rednecks. Rednecks come from the same Scots-Irish tradition as hillbillies and have the same honor code and are just as quick to fight. It’s a deep and ingrained culture in the South and it makes no difference how much money you make or what subdivision you live in, a redneck will usually stay a redneck. And be proud of it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with tradition and sticking by your kin. What’s wrong is being content with a rotten life because that’s what you’ve always known, and you can’t see a way out. These are the points Mr. Vance makes in his book. Government policies, more school funding, more welfare. These are not the things that help disadvantaged kids in these areas. It’s people who make the difference. Mr. Vance had people, family members, teachers, friends, who made him see that there was something more than the misery of his current situation.
People need Jesus. And not just as a get-into-heaven-free card. They need the power of the Lord to breakdown those demonic barriers that keep people fighting and fleeing for generations. It’s Satan’s most successful strategy in the modern Western world: keep families angry and hurt and resentful and vindictive. Keep widening the criteria for victim-hood. Keep preaching hate and divisive politics. Mr. Vance makes the point that the government can’t save these communities with legislation. The only way a culture will change is when the majority of its adherents finally say enough is enough. It’s people who are going to make the difference and we as people need to recognize barriers that are keeping us apart and call on the Lord to pull down those strongholds.
Hillbilly Elegy really didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, because I live in the same kind of culture, but I think it can be a wake-up call to those who don’t. I recommend it for a quick read that’s also thought-provoking.
Here it is. The really long post about the Taiwan trip. Bear with me.
We arrived late after a day and a half of travel and crashed. Then we hit the ground running and we didn’t stop until we got home. We went to visit and support the missionary family that lives there, Clay and Rhonda and their three little girls. We pretty much just got in step with their lives in Taipei and did things like go with them to take the girls to school on the metro and join them in their ministry and outreach efforts. Our first day we got to go to the girls’ school and present bible verses during their weekly chapel. They go to a small English-speaking Christian school, but they are also learning Chinese. We got to go to a professional basketball game because Clay ministers to a few of the guys on the team. That was unexpected and less touristy. We went to church with them on Sunday and met their friends. It was awesome to worship with people from all over the world. They have a Chinese service in the morning and an English service in the afternoon. Clay took us to the famous Shi-lin night market, which was a whirlwind of light and sound and people. There were vendors selling everything you can imagine. One guy was grilling squid on a stick. We visited a Buddhist temple and learned about how people there buy food and other items to burn for their deceased family members and to appease the spirits. There’s a temple in every neighborhood and the temples make millions off the people. It was an eerie feeling in there. We babysat one evening so Clay and Rhonda could go on a date. We read the girls bedtime stories and then watched some comedy DVDs. It’s not your typical mission trip activity but it was really needed and appreciated. We had some ministry time with their friends and got to know them a little. We also did some prayer walking around the city and visited the campus of National Taiwan University, where some friends of theirs have a student outreach.
We also did some tourist things. We visited the Chaing Kai-Shek memorial. It’s a gigantic building with one bronze statue inside but it was awesome. We went to the Taipei 101 building which used to be the tallest building in the world with 101 floors. They have an observatory at the top where you can see the entire city. One day the guys went on a hike to a waterfall in the mountains and Rhonda and I took their 3-year-old to the beach. It was an hour away by train, but I loved getting out of the city and seeing the mountains and the rural areas. The beach was beautiful, and they were having a sand sculpture festival. The sculptures were huge and incredibly intricate. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The rest of the time we spent eating. Just kidding. Kind of. They took us to all their favorite restaurants and ordered lots of different dishes for us to try. Some stuff was really good, like fried rice and dumplings. Some not so much, like the seaweed and tofu dishes. They do some pretty weird stuff like put peanut butter on hamburgers and eat them for breakfast and put mayonnaise on fried shrimp and top it with rainbow sprinkles. I liked trying new things but by the last day I was pretty excited about Taco Night at Clay and Rhonda’s. They invite people they know and people they meet along the way to their home for some good ol’ Tex Mex.
Traveling back home was exhausting. We had to get up at 4 am and travel for 36 hours. We had a seven hour layover in Seoul and then had to fly for thirteen hours to Toronto. Then a short hop to Atlanta but then we drove three hours home. I was pooped. It took several days to finally recover from the jet-lag, but it was definitely worth it. I had an amazing time and I would do it again. But not for a while.
We did so many exciting things and yet the biggest thing that came out of Taiwan for me was the fact that I did it. I packed one carry-on, got on a plane with two dudes, and flew to the other side of the world. A year ago that would have seemed impossible. Now, it’s a memory. And it seems to have sparked a bravery in me. The idea of travelling and going far away from home is no longer scary. It’s exciting. Because of Taiwan I have the confidence to try. That is seriously not nothing.
Do you read the fortunes in the cookies when you get Chinese food? I usually do and then gripe about how they’re really advice more than fortunes. They tend to tell you things like “Eat more fruit.” So when I opened the fortune cookie three weeks before my mission trip to Taiwan, I wasn’t expecting what came out.
I’ve written a couple times on this blog that I was struggling with self-doubt. I wrote that I wanted to be chosen because I had something to offer and because I was unique. I also wrote that I need to start seeing myself like God sees me, as a mighty warrior. I knew God was calling me to go on this trip. He made it possible for me to get a week and a half off work despite having been on the job less than a year and he provided the funds a long time ago. It was obvious that it was His will. And still I doubted that I had made the right decision. I doubted I was worthy to be taken on a mission trip.
Then I got Chinese and opened the fortune cookie just for a laugh. It read, “If it is meant to be who are you to change that? Time to believe it.” And I sat back and said, “Whoa.” Cause if there was ever a fortune that was written just for me, it’s that one. I needed that right then and Jesus put it there. It just proves that He loves us and never stops pushing us toward our destiny. And I think it proves that Jesus has a pretty awesome sense of humor.
... the musings of a thirty-something, married, Southern teen librarian with a 14-year-old's sense of humor, an awkward spirit, and a stubborn, mouthy, redheaded country boy to accompany her through life.